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Martin Fennelly Columns

Sternberg still wants to make it work

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:13 PM

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ST. PETERSBURG -

He didn't ask us. We asked him. Remember that.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg chatted with media after batting practice Saturday — his batting practice. Sternberg and some friends took their cuts before The Rays and Red Sox got serious.

"I did hit the warning track, but too far in left center," Sternberg said. "See that State Farm right there? I short-hopped the State Farm."

Note: Stu switched from a wood to aluminum bat.

It's good to be the owner.

Sluggin' Stu didn't swing for fences, or back up moving vans, when asked about any number of subjects, but he called it like he saw it as he stood on the rug at Tropicana Field before Saturday's game, which drew 32,487, the largest crowd since opening night, and which was televised nationally, just like tonight with Boston or Monday with the Yankees.

"There would be nothing more perfect than having it work all here right now," Sternberg said. "This isn't about putting up Stu Sternberg's palace, or my idea of a ball field."

Here?

"The concept when we first came in was, we were extraordinarily confident that we were going to make it work. Were we going to win the AL East twice? No, but be competitive. Everybody, to a person, longtime residents, the present company … (said) when you win, oh, this place, everybody, and the energy, they're just waiting … So I went in with that mindset.

"I said all right, great, we're going to be friendly and our prices are going to be great and we're going to fix this place up, put all the dough in here, and you know what, we're also going to win."

The Rays remain in the AL East race, despite Saturday's 9-5 loss — despite slashing more than $30 million in payroll. Attendance lags, trailed only by stadium consensus. Here comes the trade deadline, and you've got to wonder, again, how this franchise will respond as the Red Sox and Yankees do their inevitable, inexorable shopping. Will the Rays be buyers or sellers? My guess is not much of either.

"There are a lot of examples of people adapting," said Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver, who helped call Saturday's game. "In baseball, no one does a better job at adapting than the Rays … Stu, (GM) Andrew (Friedman), Joe Maddon, this team, what they've done in this division, are you kidding me?"

That still hasn't poured any stadium foundation.

Sternberg's eyes went slightly dead when asked about attendance, still the second-lowest in the majors, behind the Marlins — who are, at long last, opening a new stadium next season.

"I'm really not focused on the attendance," Sternberg said. "I'm tired of thinking about it, talking about it, you're tired of asking me the question. Most importantly, everybody is tired of hearing about it.

"We're going to try to do as well as we can on the field and enjoy what's happening day to day. The numbers are coming through are what they are. I don't anticipate talking about it or focusing on it at all this season or any time in the near future after that."

As for the playoff race:

"Our margin for error is thinner, whether it's losing a player and replacing him or signing a player and having him not perform ... And it's important to keep our guys healthy. You know, that could determine it sometimes. The Yankees have a couple of players out. I think it's fair to say if they remain completely healthy and we remain completely healthy they're a better ball club."

"We have to remain healthy and hope we get some breaks on that end, with under-performance on their end, by the Red Sox or the Yankees."

In a freaky sort of way, maybe the only way for the Rays to prove the model doesn't work here is for them to stop with their infernal winning …

"Maybe a losing product," Sternberg said, smiling slightly.

And now back to the reality.

"Clearly nobody is tanking anything," Sternberg said. "This is all about winning, game by game, season by season, having a three- to five-year plan of how you want to approach things."

He was asked if he'll ever sit in a new Rays ballpark.

"Ever's a long time. Ever's a long time. I'd like it to happen. I'd love to sit in a box here and not have to think about it. That would be ideal. When you ask me what I'd love, that's what I'd love. I'd love to able to take the tarps off (the seats). There are a lot of things I'd love to do. I'd love to be able to sign some of our players long term and not have to worry about dropping $30 million (in payroll)."

Wood versus aluminum, all over again.

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